Thurston Moore’s Free Jazz Top Ten… it’s hard to overstate how much this meant to me at the time. In fact, this was in a copy of Grand Royal Magazine which had Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on the cover, and a comprehensive Perry discography within. In 1994 my musical boundaries were just exploding open, and these two revelations, namely dub reggae and free jazz, pretty much steered my listening habits toward the present. I was gone.
At the time, none of these records were even available. That was a frustrating realization, but also intensified the search, like I was finding pirate treasure. When I finally sprung one of these gems (and they’re all fucking gems), I could hardly stand it, such a release. I quickly moved beyond this list, as it really opened up a whole new world of musical possibility; there’s enough here to be a roadmap, and that’s what it was for me. I wonder what Thurston would say about it now.
The list has been google-able for years. Some of these recordings are STILL hard to find, though I believe all have been spotted on the internet at one time or another. I just heard the Marzette Watts for the first time this year. Though, it’s an age where you can track down 75-85% of the list in an afternoon. Still, that shouldn’t minimize the music’s force. If you have a free afternoon, by all means.
But maybe it’s true that these sounds gained stature by their scarcity, at least it is for me.
When I look at the list today, I recognize a few of my very favorite records, ones that still mean a lot to me. I have been kicking the idea around of doing my own top ten from the free jazz underground just for fun (though that word “undergound” has really become less significant in our reissue/mp3blog culture. What is underground, really?) My top ten would be different, but similar, and the historical nature of this document really makes it the end-all of lists. Mine could never compete. So here then:
Top ten from the free jazz underground
by Thurston Moore. Published in Grand Royal Magazine #2
No matter how you listen to it JAZZ is ostensibly about FREEDOM.
FREEDOM and the MYSTERY surrounding it.
And, like MUSIC, it is an ABSTRACT.
It’s SHAPES, FORMS (SOUNDS!) are DISTINCT and PERSONAL and SENSITIVE to each player’s DESIRE.
And the DESIRE is INFINITE.
FREEDOM is not just another word for nothing left to lose.
We know this from MESSAGES beamed from the space-lantern of his cosmic highness SUN RA! The MESSAGE was clear:
To freely improvise a solo within a structural context may have begun with a young Louis Armstrong in the early 20’s. As a boy he grew up in New Orleans hearing and seeing musicians both black and white cultivating a celebratory and spiritual vibe.
They were flowers in the dustbin.Slaveships stole the horns and drums. The captured African would not be allowed to communicate as they had.
Upon THE FREEDOM ACT the freed slave sought and fought for the EXPRESSION oppressed.
And THE FREEDOM PRINCIPLE developed.
Jelly Roll Morton, like Louis Armstrong began to record compositions of PURE BLACK AWARENESS. Both these men had been witness, early in the century, to BUDDY BOLDEN – a man who supposedly blew the cornet so masterfully (and so loud!) that his legend was rampant. He supposedly recorded upon a cylinder (pre-vinyl format) and it has yet to be found!!
Ideas of improvisation, live and on recordings, became increasingly more sophisticated and political throughout the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. From Lester Youngs’ twisting reedy tones to Charlie Parkers spurious key changes and (along with Miles Davis, Max Roach, et al) hyper-fast note-fly.
John Coltrane was the man. With the introduction of the long-playing record, people like Trane could experiment and extend their playing for posterity. The vinyl communicated around the world. Trane’s SOUND was BEAUTIFUL and COMPLEX and inspired all who received it. Trane himself was duly inspired by some of the most far-out musicians of the then burgeoning jazz avant-garde. Chief amongst them was Sun Ra & his Arkestra.
Factions of experimentation abounded throughout the 50’s and 60’s. Trane, Ra, Ornette Coleman and his white plastic alto playing notes and tones at once beautiful and harsh. Thelonius Monk, Lennie Tristano, Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy composing and playing music inspired by whole worlds of experience (blues, eastern and western classical, religion, etc.)
Music like no one had yet imagined would emanate from the wild hearts of those such as Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor.
These are all names of artists commonly associated with the avant-garde jazz underground of the 20th century. They all recorded fairly prolifically throughout their lifetimes (and some, like Cecil Taylor, continue). But there were so many more musicians performing and recording so-called “new” music at the time. It happened mostly in the late 60’s/early 70’s with the concept of artist-run collectives coming into fruition.
To play jazz totally FREE and ORGANIC was a gesture whose time had come in the 60’s. It was SOCIAL and POLITICAL for reasons involving relationship, race, fury, rage, peace, war, love and FREEDOM.
We search for artifacts from this underground constantly. They were arcane and obscure at the time and are even more so today. No record labels are reissuing this stuff (some are e.g.: Evidence Records reissuing all of Sun Ra’s independent Saturn label releases).
Here’s a list of ten (out of hundreds of) LP’s recorded in total grassroots fashion from the FREE-JAZZ underground. These are fairly impossible to locate and if you want to know what FREE-JAZZ may sound like you can get CD’s of certain crucial classics where this music was allowed to exist: John Coltrane-Interstellar Space (Impulse/MCA), Ornette Coleman-Beauty Is A Rare Thing (Atlantic/Rhino), The Art Ensemble – 1967/68 (Nessa, PO Box 394, Whitehall, MI 49461), Sun Ra-various titles (Evidence)
TOP TEN FREE JAZZ UNDERGROUND
1. DAVE BURRELL – Echo (BYG 529.320/Actuel Volume 20)..
In the fall of 1969 Free Jazz was reaching a kind of nadir/nexus. Within the industry it was controversial. Classic traditionalists (beboppers included) were outraged by men in dashikis and sandals jumping on stage and just BLOWING their guts out creating screaming torrents of action. Most musicians involved with this crying anarchy could get no bookings beyond the New York loft set. The French lovers of the avant-garde embraced this African-American scene wholly. This recording is one of many in a series of LP’s with consistent design. BYG released classic Free Jazz documents by Archie Shepp (at his wildest), Clifford Thornton, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Grachan Moncur III, Sunny Murray, Alan Silva, Arthur Jones, Dewey Redman and many others. A lot of these cats are present on this recording where from the first groove it sounds like an acoustic tidal wave exploding into shards of dynamite. If you can locate Alan Silva’s “Lunar Surface” LP (BYG 529.312/Actuel Vol. 12) you’ll find a world even that much more OUT.
2. MILFORD GRAVES & DON PULLEN – Nommo (S.R.P. LP-290)
Milford may be one of the most important players in the Free Jazz underground. He enforces the sense of community as a primary exponent of his freely improvised music. His drumkit is home-made and he rarely performs outside of his neighborhood. When he does perform he plays his kit like no other. Wild, slapping, bashing, tribal freak-outs interplexed with silence, serenity and enlightened meditation. This LP was manufactured by the artists in 1967 and is recorded live at Yale University. The interplay between Milford and Don (piano) is remarkable and very free. There’s a second volume which also is as rare as hen’s teeth.
3. ARTHUR DOYLE Plus 4 – Alabama Feeling (AK-BA AK-1030)
Arthur is a strange cat. Not too many people know where he’s from (Alabama is a good guess). He resided in New York City in the 70’s and showed up in loftspaces spitting out incredible post-Aylerisms. Mystic music which took on the air of chasing ghosts and spirits through halls of mirrors (!). He hooked up with noise/action guitarist Rudolph Grey who was making the current No-Wave scene and with Beaver Harris (drums) they played gigs in front of unsuspecting art creeps apparently not “hip” enough to dig, let alone document, the history blasting their brains. Arthur did release this lo-fi masterpiece and it’s a spiraling cry of freedom and fury. AKBA Records released a number of classic NYC loft-jazz sessions, most notably those of label boss Charles Tyler, a screaming tenor player who also blew with Rudolph in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Arthur continues to play/teach etc. in Binghamton, N.Y. and recently released in 1993 “More Alabama Feeling” on yours truly’s Ecstatic Peace label (available from Forced Exposure/POB 9102/Waltham, MA 02254)
4. SONNY MURRAY – Sonny’s Time Now (Jihad 663)
Sonny was the drummer considered to be the first to realize and recognize and perform, on drums, pure FREE jazz. He played behind and along with Ayler early on and Cecil Taylor. He constructed groups which always flew and raged with spiritual abandon. He took time as an abstract and turned it into free motion. This recording is super-lo-fi and is awesome. On it play Ayler(tenor) and Don Cherry (trumpet) as well as Leroi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka) reading a killer poem called “Black Art”. This music is very Ayler but more fractured and odd. Like a lot of these records there is only a front cover with the back of the jacket blank. Whether this was done for economic or artistic reasons is unclear. Jihad was a concern of Leroi Jones and anything released on this label is utterly obscure. The only other title I’ve seen is one just called “BLACK AND BEAUTIFUL” from the mid-60’s which is Leroi and friends sitting on the stoops of Harlem chanting, beating drums and celebrating Leroi’s “poems” (“The white man/at best/is..corny!”) There was an ad for Jihad in an old issue of Jazz & Pop magazine which announced a Don Ayler (Albert’s amazing trumpet-playing bro) LP but I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s actually seen this. “Sonny’s Time Now” was reissued a few years ago in Japan (DIW-25002) on CD and LP (with an enclosed 7″ of two extra scratchy tracks!) but even that is near impossible to locate. Recorded in 1965.
5. THE RIC COLBECK QUARTET – The Sun Is Coming Up (Fontana 6383 001)
Issued in the UK only in 1970. Ric was an interesting white cat who came to the U.S. to blow some free e-motion with NYC loft dwellers. He’s most well known for his amazing playing on the great Noah Howard’s first ESP-Disk release (ESP 1031). The whole 1000 series of ESP is critical & crucial to anybody wanting to explore this era of Free Jazz featuring recordings by Ayler, Ornette, Sonny Simmons, Sun Ra, Henry Grimes, Steve Lacy, Sunny Murray, Marzette Watts, Patty Waters, et al. I’m not including any of these in this list as they’re all available on CD now (from Forced Exposure, address above). The picture of Ric on the Noah Howard LP shows a man with race-car shades and a “cool” haircut playing his horn while a ciggie burns nonchalantly from his relaxed grip. A very hip dude. And very FREE. His only solo recording is this Fontana LP which he recorded while cruising through Europe. He connected with South African drummer Selwyn Lissack (whatever happened to…) and the UK’s famous avant-altoist Mike Osborne and bassist J.F. ‘Jenny’ Clark (student of 20th century compositionists Lucian Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen) to create this exceptional and complex masterpiece
6. JOHN TCHICAI AND CADENTIA NOVA DANICA – Afrodisiaca (MPS CRM711)
Tchicai is a 6’6″ Danish/Congolese tenor sax player who, in the early 60’s, started blowing minds all across the Netherlands with his radical “music for the future”. Archie Shepp encouraged him to come to NYC and join like-minded souls of avant-guardia. Tchicai came over and kicked everybodys ass. Leroi Jones shouted his name and talent loudly as Tchicai hooked up with Shepp and Don Cherry for the New York Contemporary Five and later an even heavier ensemble with Milford Graves and Roswell Rudd called the New York Art Quartet. The NYAQ recorded one of the most crucial sessions for ESP-Disk (esp1004) which had Leroi reciting his infamous BLACK DADA NIHILISMUS (available on CD from Forced Exposure). AFRODISIACA was released in Germany (and in other re-release configurations…supposedly) and is Tchicai gathered with 25 other local-Euro musicians playing a hurricane of a piece by trumpet/composer Hugh Steinmetz. This music gets way way out and has the real ability to take you “there”. The echo effect on some of this shit is quite ill in a very analog way. And the way the shit gets that dirty-needled distortion at the end of side one (all 25 cats GOING AT IT!) is beautiful, baby, BEAUTIFUL!!
7. RASHIED ALI and FRANK LOWE – Duo Exchange (Survival SR101)
Frank Lowe has been studying and playing a consistently developing tenor sax style for a few decades now. At present he’s been swinging through a Lester Young trip which can be heard majestically on his Ecstatic Peace recording (E#19..from Forced Exp.) In the early 70’s, however, he was a firebrande who snarled and blew hot lava skronk from loft to loft. He played with Alice Coltrane on some of her more out sessions. Rashied Ali was the free-yet-disciplined drummer whom Coltrane enlisted to play alongside Elvin Jones and Pharaoh Sanders (and Alice) in his last mind-bending, space-maniacal recordings (check out surely the Coltrane/Ali duet CD Interstellar Space). Elvin quit the group cuz Rashied was too hardcore. Those were the fuckin’ days. And Rashied had his own club downtown NYC called Ali’s Alley! Duo Exchange is Rashied and Frank completely going at it and just burning notes and chords where ever they can find ‘em. Totally sick. Survival was Rashied’s record label which had cool b&w matte sleeves and some crucial releases mostly with his quartet/quintet and a duo session with violinist LeRoy Jenkins.
8. THE PETER BROTZMANN SEXTET/QUARTET – Nipples (Calig – CAL30604)
The influence of Free Jazz-era Coltrane, Ayler, Esp-disk, Shepp, etc. on hard drinking, knuckle-biting European white cats is formidable. These guys didn’t care so much about plaing “jazz” as just totally ripping their guts out with high-energy, brain-plowing NOISE. Brotzmann (sax, German), Evan Parker (sax, UK), Derek Bailey (guitar, UK), and Han Bennink (drums, Dutch) are a few of the spearheaders of this Free-Euro scene and are caught on this insanely rare early document. The b&w cover has a fold-out accordion post card set of personal images of the musicians glued and paperclipped to its front. Brotzmann went on to help further the critical documentation of the Euro-Free-Jazz scene with FMP (Free Music Productions) Records which still exists to this day. There are over a 100 releases on this label of pure Euro-improv and they all offer remarkable moments. Derek Bailey went on to create his own categorically similar Incus Records in the UK which is also still extant. As is the Han Bennink associated I.C.P. (Instant Composers Pool) Records. The most mind-blasting of these recordings may be MACHINE GUN (FMP 24 CD available from NorthCountry Distr./Cadence Bldg./Redwood, NY 13679) where Brotzmann leads an octet through a smashing clanging wonderland of noise. Improvisation and classic western musics are seriously tended to by a large Euro community and it’s all pretty fascinating. Check out the works of Alexander von Schlippenbach, Barry Guy & The London Jazz Composers Orchestra, Misha Mengleberg, Peter Kowald, Andre Jaume, Andrea Centazzo, Lol Coxhill and just about anybody who plays with them.
9. THE MARZETTE WATTS ENSEMBLE – (Savoy MG-12193)
Marzette was a serious black art cat who resided in downtown NYC when Free Jazz as a NEW cultural revolution was in full gear. He painted and composed wonderful music where some of the coolest locals could flow their flavor. One of the heaviest ESP-disk recordings is Marzette’s MARZETTE AND COMPANY (On CD from Forced Exposure) which has the incredible talents of saxist Byard Lancaster (who released an early indie b&w Free Jazz classic out of Philly called LIVE AT MCALLISTER COLLEGE – find it and send it to me..) and guitarist Sonny Sharrock (check his wild influence on Pharaoh Sanders’ TAUHID Impulse CD and his own obscure noise guitar masterpiece BLACK WOMAN on Vortex) and cornetist Clifford Thornton (academic NEW MUSIC/Free Jazz “teacher” who released a few crucial sides such as COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK on Third World and THE PANTHER AND THE LASH on America) and the amazing free vocalist Patty Waters (who recorded two infamous hair-raising platters on ESP-Disc). This recording on Savoy was one of a series produced by Bill Dixon, an early associate of Archie Shepp’s, who was an incredible composer in his own right. I’ve heard tapes of Dixon leading Free-Jazz orchestras into sonic symphonic heavens. Very hardcore.
This recording I list because of all its obvious loaded references but it’s also quite happening and anything with Marzette, Dixon (especially INTENTS AND PURPOSES on RCA Victor), Byard (careful, there’s some clinkers) and Clifford is extremely worthwhile.
10. MARION BROWN – In Sommerhausen (Calig 30 605)
BLACK ARTISTS GROUP – In Paris, Aries 1973 (BAG 324 000)
FRANK WRIGHT QUARTET – Uhuru Na Umoja (America 30 AM 6104)
DR. UMEZU-SEIKATSU KOJYO IINKAI – (SKI NO. 1)
CECIL TAYLOR – Indent, part 2 (Unit Core 30555)
Five way tie for last? Well, seeing as there’s no “beginning” or “end” to this shit I have to list as many items as possible just to reiterate the fact that there was (indeed) a ton o’ groovy artifactual evidence to support the reality of the existence of FREE MUSIC. Dig? There’s used record stores all over the country (the world!) and they all have the potential to be hiding some of these curios amongst the bins and most peeps just ain’t sure of their worth and sometimes you can find ‘em really cheap. It’s definitely a marketplace of the rarefied so when peeps are “hip” to it expect this shit to be way pricey.
Marion Brown was/is an alto player who made an incredible LP with Tony Oxley and Maarten Altena called “Porto Novo” that just twists and burns start to finish. Marion could really get on OUT as well as just play straight up. Shepp dug him and got him to do some great LP’s on Impulse. He had a septet at one point that was especially remarkable featuring Beaver Harris (drums), Dave Burrell (piano), Grachan Moncur III (bone), and Alan Shorter (trumpet). Alan being Wayne Shorter’s (Miles Davis sideman/classicist) brother. Where Wayne was fairly contemporary (though eclectic as a muh’fuck) Alan was strictly ill and has two obscuro LP’s worth hunting down: “Orgasm” (Verve V6 8768) and “Tes Estat” (America AM 6118). “In Sommerhausen” is Marion in late 60’s exploratory fashion and is quite freaky with the vocal whoops of Jeanne Lee. There’s another LP from this period called “Gesprachsfetzen” (Calig CAL 30601) which really lays down the scorch.
The Black Artists Group was an unit not unlike that of The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Except they only recorded this one document and it only came out in France on a label named after the group. This is squeaky, spindly stuff and very OPEN and a good indication of what was happening in the early 70’s with members Oliver Lake (later of the infamous World Saxophone Quartet) and Joseph Bowie (Art Ensemble’s Lester Bowie’s bro, later to start Defunkt).
Tenor saxist Frank Wright may be (previous to Charles Gayle’s current reign) the heir apparent to both Trane and Ayler. Unfortunately he had a heart attack a few years back while rockin’ the bandstand. All his recordings are more than worthwhile especially his BYG outing “One For John” (529.336/Actuel Vol. 36), his two ESP sessions (on CD from Forced Exposure) and his Center-of-the-World series of trio recordings with Alan Silva (bass) and Muhammed Ali (drums – Rashied’s brother, not the pugilist) on the French label Sun. This LP “Uhuru..” is nothing short of killer with the great Noah Howard (alto), Bobby Few (pianist of Steve Lacy fame) and Art Taylor (heavy old-school drummer in free mode) going OUT and AT IT in stunning reverie.
FREE JAZZ of course made a strong impression on the more existential-sensitive populace of Japan. Some real masters came out of the Japanese scene and were influential to some of the more renowned noise artists of today (Boredoms, Haino Keiji). One such Jap-cat is alt-saxist Dr. Umezu who has mixed it up with NYC loft-dwellers on more than one occasion. On this completely obscure, underground release he unleashed some pretty free shit with the likes of William Parker (bass), Ahmed Abdullah (trumpet), and Rashid Shinan (drums). Parker is possibly one of the most important FREE musicians working in NYC. He’s got his own constant writing/performing schedule as well as gigs with anyone from Cecil Taylor to Charles Gayle. He recorded one solo LP in the 70’s called “Through Acceptance of the Mystery Peace” (Centering Records 1001) which is, as you might’ve guessed, “good”.
I suppose we should wind things up with the king of FREE MUSIC then and now: Cecil Taylor. Cecil started experimenting with sound, new concepts of “swing”, open rhythms and room dynamics very early on. He furthered his adventure with music-conservatory studies and applied a master’s technique to his fleeting, furious, highly-sensitive pianistic ACTIONS. Today he’s almost shaman-like in his mystic noise transploits. He hates record business weasels after years of scorn and neglect (club owners had been know to beat him up after gigs claiming he damaged their pianos) and records now for the aforementioned artist’s label FMP. In the early 70’s he had his own label called Unit Core and released two crucial LP’s: the one listed above and one titled “Spring of Two Blue J’s” (Unit Core 30551). This is when his group included two critical figures on the FREE scene. Alt-saxist Jimmy Lyons (now deceased) was a consistent improviser and a perfect player alongside Cecil as was veteran drummer Andrew Cyrille who recorded his own solo (and duos with the likes of Milford Graves and Peter Brotzmann) LP’s on various small labels (BYG, FMP, Ictus).
So..that’s it…and that’s not it. If you’re at all intrigued by this personal primer do yourself a favor and seek some of this shit out and free yr fucking mind and yr ass will surely scream and SHOUT.